While opium dens were commonly featured in Victorian fiction, the most common use of opiates was in the form of pharmaceuticals.
The greatest problem with most drugs isn’t their addictiveness or even their potency, but rather their availability and acceptance. When users are confined to opium dens, drug consumption is portrayed as unglamorous and immoral. In Once Upon a Time in America, Robert De Niro portrays a criminal who frequents opium dens for his high. But opium wasn’t just available to the dissolute, and it wasn’t just confined to dens. Opium usage moved into doctors’ examination rooms, dissipating the stigma attached to the drug and opening up its availability to all classes of society.
This social acceptance (perhaps even laudation) and common usage of an addictive drug occurred after Paracelsus, a 16th-century Swiss-German alchemist, created “laudanum,” a mixture of 10% opium and 90% alcohol. It was later refined and successfully promoted by Thomas Sydenham, a 17th-century physician. And once opium turned into an approved drug on the shelf, its spread would not be stemmed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes sneaking into opium dens, as in The Man with the Twisted Lip, nor would it be as easy to combat as it is for Tintin in his Blue Lotus adventure.
In fact, laudanum eventually became the catch-all remedy for ailments ranging from colds to meningitis to cardiac diseases. Marketed as medicine, laudanum was not subject to the same taxation as alcohol, making it affordable and accessible to all, even the poorest of society. Laudanum reached the high classes, too. It even played a role in Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance; as rumour goes, she purchased it before disappearing, supposedly as part of her plan to frame her husband for her murder.
Everyone praised laudanum for its medicinal benefits, but it was more likely the drug-induced high that enticed most people. And like with any other drug, once the user lost his high, negative side-effects kicked in.
It took centuries for people to realize how dangerously addictive laudanum was. But when one drug was removed from the shelves, another one immediately replaced it. If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens were writing novels today, their characters would be morphine addicts.
To discover more about opium, from its origins to the peak of its abuse, grab a copy of Parkstone International’s latest title Opium.